Two Years Before the Mast

The Emerald Isle - See
The Emerald Isle – One of the ships Francis served on

Francis O’Neill is remembered for his huge contribution to Irish music while Chicago police chief at the turn of the last century. But not many know about his life at sea. His memoirs recount great stories of his early years (see here for more) and became the basis for the first half of my upcoming Chief O’Neill novel. But was there a literary influence for O’Neill’s own memoirs?

Something tugged at my memory when I recently stumbled across the Wikipedia entry for R.H. Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. Published in 1840, Dana’s memoir was a popular account of a two year sea voyage from Boston to California. Herman Melville was very impressed by Dana’s work and even echoed some of his passages in his own nautical tales. Reading about this reminded me of the following section from O’Neill’s memoirs where he describes his retirement from the force:

What buoyancy of spirit was mine when free to follow the prompting of my inclinations, after laying down the official burdens of recent years… A voyage to Ireland followed in 1906, after an absence of forty-one years, although its verdant shores and bold headlands were glimpsed twice in the four years I sailed “before the mast”.

Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago (pg. 157)

Although O’Neill was to travel in roughly the opposite direction as Dana over twenty years later, there are similarities between the two stories: terrible storms, visits to Mexico, difficulty crossing Cape Horn. Dana also has a theme of the ill effects of a cruel captain, something also which greatly occupied O’Neill. “Before the Mast” was a common phrase at the time, so perhaps I am stretching a bit here. However, it is interesting to see a common thread between these nineteenth century accounts of life at sea. O’Neill’s own description of an encounter with whales reads like a passage from Moby Dick:

While taking my trick at the wheel one morning when off the Falkland Islands, I felt a jarring shock as if a heavy body had come in contact with the hull. What it may have been remained a mystery until dawn. The fact was that the good ship Hannah had run into a school of whales, one of which had in darkness collided against her side. With daylight came a scene the like of which is seldom witnessed. Spouting whales, scores of them, could be seen in all directions, coming to the surface to breathe and dive again…

Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago (pg. 35)

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